Modernist Journals

Critical Editions Produced by Students at Rider University

Ezra Pound & George Antheil: Vorticist Music following Blast.

Introduction

Blast magazine is a two-volume literary and art publication that came out of London before and at the start of the First World War. The agenda and visual style of the magazines were revolutionary for the art world, being manifestations of the Vorticist art movement, founded primarily by Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound in the same period. An English convergence of French Cubism and Italian Futurism, “tapping the strengths of both and leaving their weaknesses severely alone” (Cork 246), “Vorticism is art before it has spread itself into flaccidity, into elaboration and secondary applications” (Pound). While Vorticism was also in part influenced by elements of Pound’s poetic Imagism, Lewis’s vision for Pound stood out as more relevant and urgent than that of literary Imagism for pre-war English society and the burgeoning of Modernism in Europe. It was, like most art movements in history, the youth’s reflection of their time, which for Lewis, Pound and company was a drastic upheaval of tradition and swift replacement by the machine and industrialization: “A world of steel bars,” as composer George Antheil put it, “not of old stone and key.” It was also a reaction to movements spawned before them, namely Futurism by its charismatic ringleader Filippo Marinetti, whose work also embraced industrialization, but whose arrogant attempt to overcome Britain’s culture by blindly worshiping machines eventually caused disillusionment and complete lack of support from London artists. So, Lewis, the opportunist and natural leader, used this underlying feeling to encourage the artists in London to come together and make a statement of their own.

The First World War, which one could call the nightmarish flip-side of embracing the machine age, began as the second edition of Blast was published. Following the war, Lewis’s spirit in regards to Vorticism and Blast was completely squandered, presumably in part from the loss of friend and Blast contributor, sculptor and artist Gaudier Brzeska. . No more volumes were published after the first two from 1914 and 15 due to this falling-out. Pound, however, a prominent figure in the European (and more specifically, Parisian) art scenes at this time, persisted after the war to spread awareness of his Vortex motif, “from which and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing” (Pound).

Some of the initial reaction to Blast no. 1 in England was skeptical as to whether or not the so-called Vorticists were simply a re-hashed English Futurist collective. While there were indeed Futurist elements woven in to Blast’s manifesto, Lewis was introducing an evolved “alternative to the European avant-garde” (245), more so a “movement towards art and imagination” that could only be conceived in England. Lewis and his constituents’ recognition of the artist’s guiding “mental-emotive impulse” (217), and their “sympathy for the intuitive art of primitive races” and sculptor Gaudier Brzeska’s “admiration for the ‘barbaric peoples of the earth’” (Brzeska 245) for example, sets Vorticism apart from Futurism and closer to Cubism, with the exception of the relevance of the machine to Vorticists, which Cubist artists seem to neglect as a subject.

Blast no. 1 is a visually striking piece, sporting a hot-pink cover with “BLAST written boldly diagonally across. While it is indeed a vehicle to promote and compile the group’s work and ideas, it stands as a Vorticist work of art in itself instead of a brochure or pamphlet. Riddled with cryptic social poetry, snide humor, and intriguing graphics, Blast no. 1 is destructive and comprehensive, fearless yet elegant. Some of Lewis’s first lines clearly identify his point: “We want to leave Nature and Men alone. We do not want to make people wear Futurist Patches, or fuss men to take to pink and sky-blue trousers.” Here, in order to differentiate his movement from Marinetti’s, Lewis takes a stab at the fascist, conformist aspects of Futurism.

The Vorticist manifesto in Blast no. 1 is full of contradictions vital to accurately reflect the human condition. Lewis writes, “We only want Humour if it has fought like Tragedy…We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb.” The recognition of the constant intermingling of humor and tragedy is the sign of sympathy for or at least the understanding of people lacking in Futuristic literature. The consistent “blasting” and “blessing” of nations, people and cultural tendencies represents the realistic desire to evolve and adapt through pride and discontent, or recognition of the need for culture “to be blasted into an awareness of the importance of renewal…because the vitality of art depends on the evolving society which produces it” (Cork 1). Lewis demonstrated a mature sense of pride in England based on hope, potential and his own interpretation of what is particularly beautiful about English life that can inspire great art.

Vorticism is a commonly overlooked art movement, as it was short lived, having been developed, activated, and officially diffused in less than five years. However, it was undoubtedly fruitful and included contributions from an array of painters, writers, sculptors, designers, composers, and philosophers such as Ford Madox Ford, Rebecca West, and T.S. Eliot. An all-encompassing movement arguably, as Pound expressed his adoration of Edward Wadsworth’s (a Blast contributor) illustrations as “only comparable to the pleasure [he] has in music” and eventually was able to tie the “Bach-Mozart” period of music in with Vorticism, as well as identify new composers whose music reflected his Vortex concept.  The content and aesthetic of Blast no. 1, being the initial and most energetic direct contribution to Vorticism has an undeniable energy only palpable from sincere intention and strong ambition.

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Vorticism’s Post War Reverberations

 

Retrospectively, Blast “is, in itself, a Vorticist work of art,” and perhaps even “the most successful of all Vorticist works of art” (Wees 56) in that it brought together English artists of many mediums through a “‘feeling of inner need’ that existed before Vorticism” (Pound) came to be. Contributors “found an underlying agreement” and “decided to stand together” for the common goal of achieving an English voice in the Industrial revolution, which Wyndham Lewis considered so necessary considering their London residency which exposed them most directly to the rise of the machines unlike their Cubist and Futurist predecessors. Lewis’s execution of the Blast magazine, which he founded and wrote the manifesto for, effectively operated as a portable, ever-open exhibition of Vorticism, unlike Futurism, for example, whose works initially shocked the public but were quickly diluted by founder Marinetti’s solo attempts to convert English culture following the success of their first exhibition. Vorticism thereby was able to maintain its potential even after the horrors of World War One, especially through the persistent efforts of Ezra Pound, co-founder of Blast. Pound, who developed the Vortex motif “from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing” called Lewis “a very great master of design” for “[bringing] into art new units of design and new manners of organization” which revolutionized the way in which like-minded artists could make their statement.

Unlike Lewis, who abandoned Vorticism as a result of disillusionment brought on by the First World War, Pound sought new ways to apply his Vortex motif in the years following the conflict, especially the early 20’s when Paris was the home for arguably the most fruitful artistic period in modern times. Within the Parisian pool of inspiration, Pound became acutely aware of the music being composed and likened it to Vorticism. In 1914, while the effects of the war were still to come, Pound identified that “certain works of Lewis have in them something which is to painting what certain qualities of Bach are to music” and predicted that “a new Vorticist music would come from a new computation of the mathematics of harmony.” Sure enough, less than ten years later his prediction would come to fruition in Paris. As a result of his endeavors, Vorticism developed a refined identity which for the first time separated it from Futurist influence. Although minimally cited by contemporary artists, Pound’s Vorticism, spawned from Lewis’s conception of Blast, came to define and influence a quality in art and music that was until then nameless but which still reverberates today.

George Antheil was born at the turn of the 20th century into the thriving industry-town of Trenton, New Jersey, known in this era for productivity and industrial progress. He was in fact born “across the street from a very noisy machine shop” (Antheil 13) which he figured instilled “prenatal influence.” His “instinct for self-creation and self-preservation” (Amirkhanian 4) similar to the opportunistic tendencies of Wyndham Lewis, brought him first to Berlin and then to Paris, the French capital and also world capital of the arts during this period in 1923. There, through his avid supporter Ezra Pound, he became acquainted with the likes of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and other central art figures; his contributions to music were compared to those of Joyce’s and Picasso’s in their respective fields. He became well known and endorsed by many, especially Pound who called Antheil the first “Vorticist composer” and also “the first American composer to be taken seriously.” Antheil, who was simply a concert pianist from an unlikely region who claimed to only have travelled overseas in search of a girlfriend, suddenly was being monitored at the epicenter of the cultural world. Upon his immersion, Pound immediately reacted to the original compositions of a then-unknown Antheil much as he noticed the unrecognized genius within T.S. Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Antheil, in his autobiography Bad Boy of Music, recognizes the doors that Pound, whose opinion was highly respected, opened for him, namely to the tight-knit artistic and literary circles of Paris, yet also expresses a distaste for Pound’s enthusiastic endorsement of his music and image.

Pound, who was perhaps the “world’s foremost discoverer of genius” (Antheil 117) at the time, having been a pivotal presence in the careers of Eliot, Joyce, Hemingway, and others, likened the style of Antheil’s compositions with the Vorticist aesthetic. Music hadn’t yet been associated with the art movement; Blast no. 1, which contained Lewis’s Manifesto, “left a blank space for music [since] there was in contemporary music, at that date, nothing corresponding to the work of Wyndham Lewis, Pablo Picasso or Gaudier Brzeska” (Pound 37). Pound, driven by his observation that “there has been extremely little critical examination of music, melodic line, structure, etc.” (38) took to this “new strange music.” Antheil’s sonatas from this period especially the third, titled “Death of the Machines” which opens with a trancelike phrasing and paired half-notes that results in a kind of sonic vortex, spinning downward, reminds one of the clashing shapes of Edward Wadsworth’s paintings from the mid-nineteen teens when Blast no. 1 was released. It was solely Pound who, picking up the Vorticist torch after it was abandoned by Lewis after the first World War, expanded Vorticism’s reach through the observation that “it is no more ridiculous that a person should receive or convey an emotion by means of an arrangement of shapes, or planes, or colors, than that they should receive or convey such emotion by an arrangement of musical notes.” In his 1914 essay on the movement, Pound even compares Wadsworth’s illustrations to “music as it was in Mozart’s time” and goes on to claim that “music was Vorticist in the Bach-Mozart period, before it went off into romance and sentiment and description.”

The aligning of Vorticism with musical history broadens one’s understanding of Pound’s philosophies and of the initial endeavors made in Blast, where he defines Vorticism as “art before it has spread itself in to flaccidity, into elaboration and secondary applications.” Pound, in this instance, proves to have taken the Blast contributors’ combination of Cubism and Futurism further, to where ‘Vorticist’ as a description is applicable to any “vivid” work that is completed “in some primary form” (Pound) so that when a young, undefined artist such as Antheil was documenting without “romance and sentiment” his surroundings in his compositions, Pound was able to identify its Vorticist qualities. Antheil himself described his music as being “written without sympathy…written as cold as an army operates” (62) which, although he denied the similarities between his vision and Pound’s, arguably aligns the two through the belief that art should be made without ornamentation.

One must note that while a line can be drawn between Blast and Antheil’s compositions, this comparison was made strictly on Pound’s agenda which did include revitalizing Vorticism. On page 119 of his autobiography, Antheil claims that “Ezra never [had] even the slightest idea of what [he] was after in music.” Regardless of their dissimilarities in vision, however, Pound undeniably had an eye (and an ear), a proven ability to pick out unrecognized genius. In this case, Antheil, a composer whose work represented the “anti-romantic, coldly mechanical aesthetic of the early twenties,” remained relatively disconnected from the artistic movements that Pound was involved in and influenced by. Instead of Pound, and understandably so, Antheil admits he would have preferred sponsorship from fellow composer Erik Satie who was an open supporter of Antheil’s work. In 1924, just as Antheil announced the conception of his most famous work, Ballet Mécanique, written for Fernand Leger’s film, Satie similarly embarked to write “a mechanical ballet” as an accompaniment to a motion-picture, which Antheil considered “the compliment supreme” (135).

Antheil’s autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, written in his late forties, has a nostalgic, humorously (that is to say, not annoyingly) arrogant tone and such features as romantic sub-plots pleasantly strung along throughout. With his sense of assurance in his own legacy, one soon gains suspicions of the level of self-revisionism within the text. In fact, on the very subject of Ballet Mécanique’s conception, Antheil contradicts himself by first stating that Leger was “inspired by [his] Mechanisms” to make the film and approached him to compose for it. Later in the book he states that he, the composer, “sought a motion-picture accompaniment to the piece.”

Later in life, Antheil expressed embarrassment toward his autobiography, advising musicians to avoid similar endeavors, especially before turning “at least sixty.” This sentiment from Antheil could arguably lean one towards looking closer at Pound’s study of Antheil’s compositions. After all, Antheil was simply a musician raised in central New Jersey, a place of no cultural significance whatsoever. He ventured to Europe as a concert pianist in a timely and coincidental manner, one that landed him right in the middle of the art world. His first apartment in Paris, in fact, was directly above the famous Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore which was a meeting place for Pound, Hemingway, Joyce and the like. He embraced the culture, and composed a music that was an unbridled reflection of it. Pound, by this time, was an experienced critic with an agenda, friends with artists of all mediums and ideals. Someone like Antheil was not to be deciding force regarding the impact his music would have, only the composers and cultural aspects he would be directly influenced by. Antheil, for example, would have never predicted that his “extreme” use of “Stravinsky’s focus on repeated musical phrases and displaced accents” would make way for the “minimalist composers of the 1960’s for decades later.” This is not within the space of thought for the composer, but for Pound, a socially-conscious writer and thinker, someone who draws lines between styles and themes of art, this is natural territory. Pound developed the idea that “every phase of emotion has some rhythm-phrase to express it.” Witnessing Antheil’s music, like his opus Ballet Mécanique which utilized “the technology of the player piano and noise making devices” (Amirkhanian 7), Pound drew the line to Vorticism, which thereby defined this primal approach to composition.  In 1931, Randall Thompson, writer for Modern Music, wrote that “Antheil’s music has come to symbolize the very acme of demented modernism” as a response to the riot which took place at the American premiere of Ballet Mécanique. The current of Antheil’s “demented” modernism can still be felt, as modernism undoubtedly has maintained powerful influence in the arts. When pound defined it as Vorticist music, he solidified its significance and paved a road on which the music remains able to influence composers and any artist with a “demented” vision.

6

This drawing is taken from Antheil’s notebooks and reminds one of Pound’s “Vortex” motif.

  1. (top left) Antheil next to airplane propeller and other noise machines which were used for composing Ballet Mecanique.
  2. (top right) Pound and Antheil in Antheil’s apartment circa 1923
  3. (bottom left) “Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony” Pound’s 1924 publication
  4. -5. Vorticist pieces done by Wadsworth, who’s work Pound compared to the experience he received when listening to Mozart.

A live performance of Ballet Mecqanique

The 1924 Leger film Ballet Mecanique for which Antheil composed the score.

Death of the machines, a particularly Vorticist work by Antheil.

A film inspired by the Antheil and Leger collaboration. Composed by Erik Satie who is described as having been extremely enthusiastic about Antheil’s piano compositions, “leaning from the balcony and yelling, ‘What precision! What precision!” during the uproar at the Parisian premiere of Antheil’s piano compositions.

The only Antheil interview recorded, where he expresses regret toward his infamous autobiography in hindsight.

Further Reading

Ezra Pound on Vorticism, 1914:  http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/vorticism/

Vorticist Music and the Cantos: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2923872?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Antheil essay, 1916 at age 16: http://www.antheil.org/madman.html

 

Works Cited

Antheil, George. Bad Boy of Music. First Samuel French ed. Hollywood: Samuel French Trade, 1990. Print.

Cork, Richard. Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age. Berkeley and Los Angeles: G. Fraser, 1976. Print.

Derouet, Christian, Spyros Papapetros, and Jennifer Wild. Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis. Ed. Anna Vallye. N.p.: Yale University, 2013. Print. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Johnson, Douglas, and Madeleine Johnson, eds. The Age of Illusion: Art and Politics in France 1918-1940. N.p.: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1987. Print.

Michel, Walter, and C.J. Fox, comps. Wyndham Lewis on Art: Collected Writings 1913-1956. New York City: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969. Print.

Pfannkuchen, Antje. “From Vortex to Vorticism: Ezra Pound’s Art and Science.” Academia. N.p., 16 Mar. 2006. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. <http://www.academia.edu/&gt;.

Pound, Ezra. Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony. New York: Da Capo, 1968. Print. Music Reprint.

Rich, Alan. American Pioneers: Ives to Cage and Beyond. London: Phaidon, 2007. Print. 20th Century Composers Ser.

Wees, William C. “Ezra Pound as a Vorticist.” Wisconsin Studies of Contemporary Literature. Vol. 6. N.p.: University of Wisconsin, 1965. 56-72. Print.

White, Eric. Transatlantic Avant-Gardes: Little Magazines and Localist Modernism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2013. Print.

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This critical edition was written by Michael Macaulay for Laurel Harris’s 20th Century British Literature class. Thanks to Thomas Myernick for providing listening material and a copy of Antheil’s autobiography for research.

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One comment on “Ezra Pound & George Antheil: Vorticist Music following Blast.

  1. michaelconormacaulay
    January 3, 2017

    Reblogged this on Michael C. Macaulay.

    Like

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This entry was posted on May 5, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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